Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman share both a friendship and a mind-set.
The California-based trainers each have champions in their barns they staunchly did right by in the face of clamor. Though their charges have only met once on the track, months of debate has raged over whether Hollendorfer's once-blemished gelding is really the superior runner or if Sherman's transcendent Horse of the Year is the honest-to-goodness best to come out of his generation.
Luckily, the discussion is healthy and breathing fire during training hours. So neither Hollendorfer nor Sherman hesitated to showcase their shared sporting nature and let their horses give the Thoroughbred racing community another special matchup to witness.
California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion male, and Shared Belief, the 2013 juvenile champion, are giving the sport an treat early this season by virtue of their slated meeting Saturday against seven others in the Grade II, $500,000 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
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Ailments and/or the ongoing desire by many trainers to space out their horses' starts too often prevents enduring, on-track rivalries in the current racing climate.
All the more reason fans about fell over themselves when the camps of both horses declared early intentions to try to bring some clarity to what was left decidedly unsettled in the aftermath of last November's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
Though Bayern narrowly prevailed in the Classic over California Chrome in third and Shared Belief coming home fourth, the fact Bayern came over sharply at the break and appeared to body-slam Shared Belief only sparked questions as to what an outcome between the three would look like if all had a fair run.
Bayern had to skip the San Antonio when his training was interrupted last month because of a foot ailment. But for the first time since 1987 (Tasso vs. Snow Chief), the champion 2-year-old male and his 3-year-old successor are going to meet as older horses in what many are hoping is the first of several such clashes.
"It reminds me of when we were kids and you had the hot rods and were going for pink slips. You know what I mean, who's the best horse?" Sherman said during a national teleconference this week. "It's going to be fun. Whatever happens, whoever outruns each other, I just want them to have a fair shake at it.
"Me and Jerry Hollendorfer go back a long time and, you know, I felt bad for him in the Breeders' Cup, because he did have to steady and didn't really have a good shot at it. But I've been wanting to meet his horse heads up for a long time."
Sherman and Hollendorfer each saw their horses shake off their Breeders' Cup outing to score Grade I victories at the end of 2014.
Shared Belief, who was unbeaten in seven starts prior to the Classic, stamped his 2014 campaign by taking the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26, his fourth career Grade I triumph.
His wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes made him a national darling, but it was California Chrome's victory on the turf in the Grade I Hollywood Derby Nov. 29 that likely provided the extra ammo in securing his Eclipse Awards after a campaign that saw him win six of nine starts.
"Shared Belief has been remarkably consistent," said Hollendorfer, who also co-owns Shared Belief in a group that includes radio host Jim Rome. "I would say that he's carrying a little more weight than he used to. So are we improved? A little bit. As far as California Chrome goes, the Derby trail is difficult ... and the fact that he's still around and running makes him to be a tough competitor."
Though Bayern didn't make the San Antonio, his trainer Bob Baffert still has a chance to throw a shiny wrench into the promoted showdown of champions.
Breaking from the rail in the 11⁄8-mile San Antonio will be Baffert trainee Hoppertunity, who missed the Triple Crown races last year because of injury but came back to beat older horses in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28. The son of Any Given Saturday opened 2015 with a win in the Grade II San Pasqual and, while he needs to improve to match California Chrome's high cruising speed and Shared Belief's turn of foot, it wouldn't be a total shock if he grinded his way into the winner's circle.
"The horse is doing well. It's going to be an exciting race," Baffert said. "It's going to be a great racing day."
In addition to the San Antonio, Saturday's coast-to-coast slate of racing features a couple of key Kentucky Derby prep races with Grade I winner Dortmund headlining the field for the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita and multiple graded stakes winner El Kabeir facing six others in the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct.
Gulfstream Park has its own exceptional lineup Saturday, highlighted by the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and the Grade I Donn Handicap. Lea, winner of the 11⁄8-mile Donn last year, stands as the 9-to-5 morning-line choice in the field of 10 but will have to contend with Grade I winner Constitution — who is unbeaten in three starts at Gulfstream — and his stablemate Commissioner, the runner-up in the 2014 Belmont Stakes.